Economic growth The new battle cry

After years of stagnation and decay, irrespective of who is at the seat of the government, economic development will be a battle cry in the nation’s politics for sometime to come. While the Maoists, mainly the new finance minister, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, promises to jack up our per capita GDP to $3000 in 10 years, implying an annual growth rate of 28 per cent, the retired finance minister Dr. Ram Saran Mahat of the Nepali Congress has disparaged it as a “windbag”.

However, in the opposition bench, Mahat is clearly seen as attempting to throw cold water at a rather commendable, however ambitious, goal set by the Maoist leaders for uplift of this chronically poor country. After all, what NC — and Dr. Mahat as its perpetual finance minister — have accomplished during its long reign has been the progressive deterioration of the country’s economy. The per capita GDP remained much below $300; the economy remained chronically rural, characterised by massive unemployment, acute poverty and widespread malnutrition. While NC ruled the country the longest after 1990, cronyism, corruption and self-indulgence that constituted the bedrock of their governing ethos did little to help the country out of this morass.

Even as recently as 2006, the CIAA had to meekly withdraw the corruption case against G P Koirala from the Supreme Court to save the country further embarrassment. Therefore, before criticisms such as those aired by Mahat gain credence, the NC must consign these corrupt oldies into the dustbin of history and reincarnate itself under a new leader as in genuine democracies. In Britain, for instance, when the Conservative Party lost the last election the then 63-year old leader summarily resigned, making room for the charismatic and young David Cameroon to take charge. However, the Maoists themselves have hardly shed any light on how they plan to achieve the extraordinary growth rate other than to repeatedly assert that it is going to be more like “leapfrogging than the snail’s pace of the past”.

For one thing, Nepal’s land-locked position has been a big handicap, particularly for the development of its non-agriculture sector. Often unpredictable tariff and non-tariff barriers create hurdles in foreign trade. For instance, it took four years of protracted negotiation for the Indian railway system to extend its lines by a couple of kilometres to connect the dry port at Birgunj. Therefore, in order to ease the situation, access to the enormous Chinese market should be ensured through her railway system linking Kathmandu.

However, agriculture sector too remains increasingly precarious. Although 78 per cent of the country’s workforce remain tied to this sector, due to mounting population pressure, cultivated land availability has been shrinking (9.5 persons per ha in 2005) resulting in a very high under-employment rate of 47 per cent. As a result, rural poverty remains high at 34.6 per cent (2004) compared to 9.6 per cent urban poverty; and long and short-term migration remains an integral part of Nepal’s rural economy.

For these reasons, the proposed quantum leap approach to Nepal’s development must have a strong rural focus, also because there are opportunities to be seized. For

instance, there is room for significant increases in agricultural productivity that would improve our food security even as it also provides employment and income opportunities to the land poor. Taking cue from the progress made in community forestry, the Maoist-led government should create conditions for our entire rural populace to apply itself for similar gains in agriculture. There are many microfinance initiatives such as the Small Farmer Cooperatives with demonstrated organisational capacities to promote such income and employment opportunities among the rural poor.

A nationwide momentum in widely participatory development is what is needed. Although we may be unable to tell exactly if the economy is growing at 28 per cent a year, the improvement in the lives of the people is bound to be palpable — entire populace enjoying increased economic benefits, enhanced food security and access to quality health and educational services.

But there are three prerequisites. First, total peace must be restored with sources of terror nowhere to be seen. Secondly, the government must rewrite the rules of local development under which, more than the DDCs and VDCs, the user groups (like community forest user groups) themselves are empowered. Third, the planning, development and foreign aid agenda too must be fundamentally re-written to make them structurally responsive to the development initiatives of our village and townspeople. These should indeed be the core contents of the much-touted Common Minimum Porgramme. After many years of frustrating democracy, an era of better living may just be attainable for the people of Nepal.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist